Writers

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Edward Gibbon

Significant English historian, Edward Gibbon (1737-1794), was in kinship care and foster care as a child.

Edward Gibbon was born in Putney, Surrey, the eldest son of Judith Porten and Edward Gibbon. The couple had 6 more children, but all of them died in infancy.

The consequences for Edward of his mother’s frequent pregnancies and general disinterest in him was that his aunt, Catherine Porten, was his primary carer. Edward’s formal education was often interrupted by his ill health, but when he was 9 years of age, his father sent Edward to boarding school, which he recalled as being a difficult time.

At the end of 1747, Edward was called back home on the death of his mother. His grief-stricken father withdrew from society to a home in Buriton and young Edward lived with his maternal grandfather, James Porten, and his aunt Catherine in Putney for 12 months. After his grandfather lost his money and home, Catherine set up a boarding house for boys attending Westminster School. At first, Edward was the only child living in the boarding house but it gradually became a success.

By September of 1750, however, Catherine Porten was obligated to seek different care for Edward who was frequently ill and absent from school. He stayed first with a servant at Bath for some months, and then with a medical professional in Winchester. Eventually Edward recovered sufficiently to live with a Reverend Mr Philip Francis at Esher in Surrey before his father sent him to Oxford University at age 15.

In 1753, 16-year-old Edward Gibbon converted to Catholicism. His father’s reaction was one of alarm as being a Roman Catholic would limit his son’s opportunities—he couldn’t become a Member of Parliament, be employed in any public office, and there would have been restrictions on how much of his inheritance he could receive. Edward Senior first sent his son to live with a friend in England but only 3 weeks later, sent him to live with a Calvinist Pastor, Daniel Pavillard, in Lausanne, Switzerland. The boy reconverted to Protestantism 18 months later.

Edward Gibbon stayed living with Daniel Pavillard in Lausanne for almost 5 years. He was positively influenced by Pavillard to expand his knowledge and learn French, and he took up an interest in history.

Gibbon returned to England as he was about to turn 21 and began on several historical projects, which were interrupted between 1760 and 1762 by his service with the Hampshire militia.

It was during a visit to Rome in 1764 that he decided to write a history of that city, and later, of the Roman Empire.

After his father died in 1770, Gibbon settled down to the work for which he is best known, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire which covered 13 centuries, beginning in the 2nd century CE and going through until 1453. The first volume was published in February 1776 to resounding success. The 2nd and 3rd volumes were published in 1781, and the final ones in 1788.

In 2017, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire was declared by The Guardian as the 83rd of 100 best nonfiction books of all time. It is, writes Robert McCrum, “…a work of universal interest, and timeless influence, unquestionably a a magnificent classic of our literature.”